To start, there’s a whole new category of whole-house audio also known as audio over IP. The IP stands for the Internet Protocol language used on the Internet. With this sort of control, every audio component can have its own IP address, functioning just like a web page, so it can be operated from a housewide control system. If it all seems too technical, don’t worry: All this happens behind the scenes when you press or click a button.
The advantages of an audio-over-IP system is that it puts all of your entertainment on a common home network, along with your computers. This way, you can have control through customized touchscreens. Having your audio on your home’s computer network can be a good thing, especially if you store music and other media on computers. It’s all there on one simple-to-use platform. Some companies making these types of systems include Control4, Russound, i-Command, NetStreams and Oxmoor. Some systems send the music signals over Category 5 (computer networking) wire but power the speakers via traditional speaker wire. Others send the whole shebang over the Cat 5 cable.
There’s an added benefit of running the high-speed Cat 5 cable to the speakers: This makes them a part of your network. According to Herman Cardenas, founder and CEO of NetStreams, putting speakers on your IP-control network allows them to optimize the sound, depending on what is being played through them. “We have the capability to create profiles for speakers,” he says. “As soon as the music stream heads to the speaker, it looks at the genre of music and can go in and re-equalize the speaker, depending on the type of music.” That means you can have better bass for rock, for instance, a more ethereal sound for classical, and so on. In case you’re wondering, the particular musical genre is communicated as data along with the music information. The first speaker company NetStreams is working on this with is Polk Audio.
Cardenas doesn’t stop there. He’s looking eagerly to what he hopes is the near future. “Once speakers have IP addresses, let’s put microphones in them, so we will be able to adjust the speakers on the fly by listening to the room [acoustics] with microphones. And in the future you’ll be able to do voice control. The speakers can automatically cancel music out and only hear your voice,” he says. “Speakers are about to go to a whole new level that we never before imagined.”
That’s already happening in some stand-alone audio systems that use Digital Signal Processing (DSP) to adjust a speaker’s sound to the listening habits of the homeowner or even the design of the room. Chris Byrne, NHT’s general manager, says the need for this has to do with lifestyle. “We don’t believe many people are sitting down in the sweet spot listening to music anymore,” he says. “They’re wandering around the house, sitting down reading, but they’re not the traditional audio enthusiast sitting down and locking in. [Now with NHT’s Xd system,] you can sit anywhere in the room and get a very good stereo image and live sound.”
These “active speakers” controlled by DSP will have far-reaching effects, Byrne says. A room correction module is one possibility that would allow users to compensate for acoustical problem areas in a room. This is something high-end audio manufacturer Meridian has already done. Only now, we can look for more and more of this technology being made available in more mainstream products.
As we said earlier, the future in home entertainment no longer is in the future. It’s here, and it’s happening now.
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Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates